Two conferences held last week underlined the Trump Administration’s combination of bad faith and ineptitude in addressing Gaza’s severe humanitarian crisis.
The first one, convened by the White House, was dubbed a "brainstorming session" on Gaza by Trump’s special representative for international negotiations Jason Greenblatt. At the outset, Greenblatt enjoined participants to "leave all politics at the door" in order to help Gaza.
Unsurprisingly, the Trump Administration itself failed at this Mission Impossible.
Presided over by Greenblatt and White House Senior Advisor Jared Kushner and attended by representatives from the United Nations, European Union, the Quartet, Israel, several Arab states (Egypt, Jordan, and five of six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council), a potpourri of European countries, Canada, and Japan, the White House conference had two glaring omissions on its guest list.
The first was the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), which was not invited to attend. As the provider of critical services – including education, food, and health care – to two-thirds of Gazans, UNRWA is a key stakeholder.
Its exclusion was entirely political. UNRWA was left out because its presence would have been an unwelcome reminder that the Trump Administration bears some responsibility for Gaza’s deepening misery.
President Trump slashed the US contribution to UNRWA to $60 million from the $125 million it had promised for this year. If Trump does not release additional funds, this will constitute a nearly 84 percent cut from the $364.6 million the US gave last year.
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This dramatic decrease from its biggest donor leaves UNRWA facing the prospect of shutting down operations. This catastrophic development would hasten the "total systems failure in Gaza" the UN Middle East peace envoy Nickolay Mladenov has warned of, including "a full collapse of the economy."
Mladenov is not alone; Israel’s security establishment is worried, too.
Trump’s decision to withhold funds from UNRWA was deeply political – and cruelly so. Trump was stung by Palestinian rage at his move intended, in Trump’s own words, to take Jerusalem "off the table" and by the subsequent decision by Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas to end contacts with the Trump Administration.
Since the U.S. does not provide any direct aid to the PA, Trump looked for another means to punish Palestinians and force the PA back to the (non-existent) negotiating table. He found UNRWA. For Trump, crippling UNRWA serves another political aim by attempting the removal of a second final-status issue (Palestinian refugees) from the table.
The second glaring omission at the White House was Palestinian representation. Given that Hamas, the effective governing authority in Gaza, is designated by the U.S. as a foreign terrorist organization (and rightly so), Palestinians should have been represented by the PA.
Jason Greenblatt expressed "regret" the PA chose not to come. "This is not about politics," he declared. "This is about the health, safety, and happiness of the people of Gaza, and of all Palestinians, Israelis, and Egyptians."
The PA’s decision not to come to the White House was political (and legitimately so). The PA has pledged to boycott the Trump Administration until the White House acknowledges that Palestinians, and not only Israelis, possess legitimate claims which must be addressed in Trump’s "ultimate deal." This move is both responsive to Palestinian public opinion and the only leverage the PA has with the Americans.
Thanks to its extremely one-sided policies, the Trump Administration cannot even secure Palestinian representation at a conference to help Palestinians.
That brings us to Rome where Egypt, Sweden, and Jordan last Thursday convened a donor conference to raise funds for UNRWA. Acting Assistant Secretary of State David Satterfield had the unenviable task of telling those assembled, who hoped to convince the US to reconsider its aid cut to UNRWA, that the Trump Administration would do no such thing. The donor conference raised nearly $100 million in new pledges for UNRWA, leaving it $346 million short for 2018.
By defunding UNRWA, the United States joined the list of actors responsible for Gaza’s man-made crisis. While Jason Greenblatt argues Hamas deserves all the blame, there is plenty to go around: Egypt and Israel maintain a siege against Gaza, controlling entry and exit, air and sea, and commerce. The Palestinian Authority also bears some responsibility.
The White House’s apparent desire to help Gaza is laudable. Unfortunately, the Trump Administration shows no indication that it will do the simplest things to help, like restoring funding to UNRWA, much less facilitating an end to the prison-like conditions which immiserate Gazans’ lives.
Debra Shushan is Director of Policy and Government Relations at Americans for Peace Now. She was previously a Middle East politics professor at the College of William and Mary. Twitter: @ShushanAPN